Dune’s music is a mélange that folds time and space

The world of Dune is a wild one. On any given day you’ve got clairvoyant sisterhoods poking your neck, giant spicy worms, and Javier Bardem spitting on your floor — and I haven’t even started on the really weird stuff. Capturing the tone and flavor of this eccentric setting isn’t easy, and while I’m not opposed to getting a lengthy monologue from Virginia Madsen, the right audio direction can do a better job of laying the groundwork for a sci-fi epic. And music has always played an important role in the various adaptations of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe across movies, TV, and games.

The soundtrack to David Lynch’s 1984 Dune adaptation features a sweeping orchestral soundtrack by Toto. A special appearance was also made by Brian Eno, who recorded the more moody and haunting stuff. Dune is the only soundtrack Toto has ever worked on, and how they came to be involved with the movie is a much longer story that you can read more about in A Masterpiece in Disarray (David Lynch’s Dune — An Oral History).

The soundtrack for the ’84 film is just as epic as Hans Zimmer’s score for the 2021 movie, but takes a different approach. At the time, the work of James Horner and John Williams was dominating sci-fi at the box office, and the theme for the original Dune movie follows a similarly bombastic approach but avoids some of the more uplifting melodies (an explicit request from Lynch).

Much like the movie’s vibe itself, the score for the original is far groovier than the later adaptations, with a heavy reliance on synths punctuated with guitar riffs. The main title suite sounds like a rock opera version of “Ride of the Valkyries,” while the theme for Baron Harkonnen immediately evokes Mike Oldfield’s haunting “Tubular Bells.” However, if you just need the CliffsNotes, the score is best summarized with the sci-fi rock ballad “Take My Hand,” which plays over the movie’s closing credits and runs through the key movements in the score in under three minutes.

While Zimmer’s score for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movies is certainly a drastic departure from Lynch’s film, you can still hear echoes of the ’84 soundtrack in it. In particular, the track “Stillsuits” pays direct homage to the opening measures of the main title of the original movie. The score isn’t a massive departure from Zimmer’s work on a myriad of other blockbusters, but makes a greater effort to feel unique.

I’m a pretty big Hans Zimmer fan, and while much of his work is guilty of sounding a bit same-y, I’d argue his score for the 2021 movie Dune: Part One is some of his best work. Zimmer’s identity is still very present in Dune, with aggressive instruments and percussion, but the score places a greater emphasis on vocals and unconventional instruments that sound otherworldly when layered together.

The score for Dune: Part One is best described as very dry and very old, thanks to its intentional use of woodwinds and hollow percussion to convey not only the arid environment of Dune, but its enigmatic atmosphere as well. Those words often sound like a bad thing, but here, it really works. The deep, heavy rhythms from tracks like “Armada” and “Leaving Caladan” are the most reminiscent of Zimmer’s previous work. However, it’s with tracks like “Sanctuary” and “Ripples in the Sand” where those feelings of mystery and wonder really manifest.

The soundtracks for the Dune video games are a whole other can of sandworms, but it’s important to discuss them because they not only occupy a critical place in video game history, but have been handled by some of the most prolific composers in the gaming industry.

1992’s Dune 2: The Building of a Dynasty, by the now-defunct Westwood Studios, is perhaps the most famous game based on the Dune franchise, and is frequently cited as the game that popularized the real-time strategy genre. The soundtracks for Dune 2 and its 1998 remake Dune 2000 were handled by Frank Klepacki, who was also responsible for scoring every entry in the legendary Command & Conquer franchise.

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Klepacki’s work on Dune 2 was intended to emulate the soundtrack for the original Dune adventure game by Cryo Interactive. And while solid, the soundtrack definitely bumps up against the technical limitations of producing music for a game with a file size of under 5 MB. However, when Klepacki revisited the classic score, he had the freedom to not only remake higher fidelity versions of his original Dune 2 soundtrack, but inject them with homages to Toto’s work on the ‘84 Dune movie. This is most apparent when listening to the Dune 2000 track “Rise of Harkonnen,” which is a remastered version of Dune 2’s “Rulers of Arrakis,” with an opening that’s an effective tribute to Toto’s Baron Harkonnen theme.

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The most recent Dune game title, Dune: Spice Wars, featured a soundtrack composed by Jesper Kyd, whose credits include work on franchises like Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, and Borderlands, to name a few. While Kyd hasn’t cited any specific inspirations for his Spice Wars soundtrack, the score mirrors the style of the game, borrowing concepts and themes from across the existing franchise without sounding derivative. The two hours of music features ambient, dreamlike tracks that echo the work of Brian Eno on the ‘84 Dune film, while also including rhythmic synth beats that will feel familiar to fans of the classic Westwood titles.

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Frank Herbert’s Dune was originally published in 1965, and it’s remarkable that almost 60 years later — and across its spectrum of adaptations — every composition manages to evoke similar feelings in its audience. Whether it’s the appropriately epic work from Toto, the more primal version produced by Hans Zimmer, or the stellar video game soundtracks, Dune has inspired a wealth of composers and musicians to provide a cohesive sense of identity to Frank Herbert’s strange and enigmatic universe.